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Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY

GDB 71.0: Conference Contention (7pm MT, SNW)

In a playoff race, every game matters. But some games have bigger playoff implications and tonight is one for both the @Edmonton Oilers and @Winnipeg Jets. After tonight, the Oilers’ next five games are against Eastern Conference teams followed by four games against Western Conference teams who aren’t competing for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division or wildcard race. Then the Oilers finish their season against Vegas and Calgary.

The Jets can’t take the Oilers’ spot in the Pacific Division race, but they are a competitor for the wildcard.

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A victory tonight and Edmonton is either six or seven points ahead of the Jets with 11 games remaining. If Edmonton went 5-5-1 after tonight, the Jets would need to go 8-3 to catch them. It is a huge game, and one of only three remaining games with so much on the line.

The Jets are far from a push over. Their top-five forwards — Mark Schiefele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nick Ehlers — are very dangerous. Connor Hellebuyck is the Vezina favourite right now and their defence, despite battling injuries all season, is still very stable.

The Oilers skaters have really struggled the past four games. They’ve been outshot 168-99 and 134-87 at 5×5. Edmonton has only had two powerplays, and with powerplays seemingly down in most games across the NHL recently, it is imperative the Oilers play better at even strength. Luckily for them Mikko Koskinen has been incredible in his three starts and one relief appearance, stopping 142 of 147 shots. It is difficult to maintain a .966Sv% for much longer than a few games.

The challenge is: can they just flip the switch after four sub-par performances?

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Earlier this year, after a few days of practice, the Oilers have rebounded nicely. They only had one practice this time and I asked Dave Tippett if anything in the practice made him believe they can rediscover the game they had in January and February.

“There was some fatigue in our game coming off that last three games in four days, but we’ve just been too loose,” answered Tippett. “There are times when you just have to grab it (the game). It is funny. There are certain things you do every day (in practice/video), but there are days when it is just, okay, bear down here. You manage those days. Yesterday we had a good day and I hope it translates into giving us a better game tonight. I think it will, but time will tell.”

Captain obvious points out the Oilers need a better effort tonight. A repeat performance of the past few games and this could be a blowout. I don’t expect them to get dominated again, but the Jets are playing good hockey, and are as healthy as they’ve been all season. Edmonton needs to match their intensity and smarts to stay in the game.

The good news is Connor McDavid returns to the lineup. “It was just the flu,” he said this morning. In the past, he’s had some really good games after missing time.

He has 3-7-10 in five games when returning after missing time. The Oilers could use a good offensive performance from McDavid this evening, along with the rest of the squad.

LINEUP…

Oilers

Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
RNH-McDavid-Kassian
Athanasiou-Sheahan-Archibald
Neal-Khaira-Chiasson

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Nurse-Bear
Klefbom-Larsson
Jones-Benning

Smith

Tippett wouldn’t divulge his lines or his third D pairing. The Draisaitl line was reunited last game, but likely won’t be tonight. Matt Benning wasn’t on the ice for the optional skate this morning, while Kris Russell and Caleb Jones were. That could mean absolutely nothing, but I do know Jones is playing.  And if Benning wasn’t he likely would have been skating unless he is injured.I had to leave to go to the players podium before seeing if either Russell stayed out late, which is usually as sign that player won’t play tonight.

Tippett and Playfair like Russell in the lineup, while many in Oilersnation want Caleb Jones due to his 5×5 play. I looked at the numbers and there isn’t much debate Jones brings more offensively. He has 4-4-8 this year at 5×5 while Russell has 0-8-8, but Russell has played 180 more minutes.

Jones has five of his eight points playing with the RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto trio, while Russel has four of his points playing with Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas. When Jones does play it will be in a third pairing role, unlike the top-four role he played when Oscar Klefbom was injured, and I wonder how much playing on the third pair would impact how much time he’d play with Draisaitl.

Last game, Russell and Benning played the fewest minutes with Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto among all the forwards, and played almost half their time with the Sheahan line. McDavid wasn’t dressed so that could change tonight, but I do wonder how much deployment matters when deciding which D-man sits out in the third pair. So far it has been Jones and Benning, and the coaches like Russell on the PK and as a veteran. Maybe he sits and mixes in the rotation of healthy scratches.

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Jets

Connor-Schiefele-Wheeler
Ehlers-Eakin-Laine
Copp-Lowry-Roslovic
Perreault-Shore-Appleton

Morrissey-Demelo
Kulikov-Pionk
Beaulieu-Poolman

Hellebuyck

On February 29th, these two teams played one of the most entertaining games of the season in my eyes. It was fast paced and intense. Schiefele’s line was the most dangerous of any visiting line I’d seen all year. They were flying. McDavid’s line faced them the majority of the game, and I’d expect will see something similar tonight. McDavid played 13 minutes with Ennis and Athanasiou and another three with Ennis and Archibald. Kassian will be one of McDavid’s wingers tonight and his size and speed will be useful battling against Wheeler.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Edmonton plays a better game in front of their goalie, but lose 3-2.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Edmonton has two powerplay chances. In 35 of their first 70 games the Oilers have had two or fewer PP chances.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Jets are the second-least penalized team in the NHL. In 41 games they’ve been on the PK twice, once or not at all. Oilersnation is very calm when Edmonton finishes with only two powerplays, and no one complains about officiating in the comment sections or on social media.

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